It is hard to believe that when Leonard, Arthur, Julius, and Herbert Marx (better known by their stage names (Chico, Harpo, Groucho, and Zeppo) assembled in early 1929 to make their first motion picture, most were already in their middle age: Chico, the firstborn, was 42, Harpo 40, Groucho 38, while Zeppo, the baby of the family born a full decade later, a mere 28. Something about their irrepressible energy, their irreverence, and their sheer outrageousness made them seem much younger, but those qualities had been honed to perfection over the previous two decades on the long hard road to stardom, as the family slowly but surely worked their way to the top of the vaudeville circuit and then Broadway. Over the twenty years that followed the brothers made a dozen more films (some against their better judgment), and while it is difficult to pick one as their absolute best, an argument could be made that they never surpassed their first five; the ones for Paramount Pictures before the infamous Hays Code imposed its “moral” guidelines on movie content, the ones that include Zeppo, and the ones the Brattle Theatre has chosen to screen this time around in their New Year’s Day marathon.
Tag: Marx Brothers
The Marx Brothers are not nice. In DUCK SOUP, the freest and most assured of their Paramount output, all characters exist to be objects of scorn and the butt of the Brothers’ jokes. There is no superfluous plot or gentler moments, which can be found in their other works. The film feels instantly less lighthearted than the other Brothers’ films, which resemble more than DUCK SOUP does other frothy parlor room theatrical comedies of their period. The comedy intersects across disparate venues from the war room to the peanut vendor, and from a wealthy mansion to the battlefield. But each character in the film is subject to the same stripping down by the Marx Brothers. Their varying degrees of pomposity are attacked by all three brothers in an attempt to render what they have to say worthless. Everyone from Margaret Dumont’s (she’s terrific) character to the grumpy street vendor present some pillar of established order, and the Brothers take them to task without mercy for doing so. Groucho gets at his most savage and flatly declares his intentions when, stripping down his main rival and Dumont, exclaims “when you get finished on her feet you can start with mine.” Then, stares straight at the audience, “if that isn’t an insult I don’t know what is.” In this same scene, the recipient of Groucho’s attack makes the closest any character comes to a plea for their own dignity, claiming naively “I didn’t come here to be insulted!” Groucho, jumping on the prior line: “That’s what you think.” A scornful sense of destruction pervades the film. The title of the most memorable musical number from HORSE FEATHERS might serve as the mantra for DUCK SOUP: “Whatever it is, I’m against it.”